By DAVID GREEN
Veterans of Heifer International study tours were all asked the same question: Why Poland?
Some had traveled to China to visit with farmers benefitting from Heifer’s assistance with cattle and rabbit production.
Others visited coastal regions of India to observe innovative livestock projects in post-tsunami areas.
They’ve witnessed milk production and fish farming projects in Tanzania, sustainable agriculture efforts among women’s groups in Kenya and urban agriculture start-ups in Peru.
John Winzeler of rural Fayette admits that the farming region of northeast Poland might be considered an odd vacation destination by most people, but that was part of the draw for everyone participating on the study tour in May. It’s a part of the world they had never seen.
“And it’s absolutely beautiful,” John said following his return last month.
But as far as agriculture is concerned, the area can prove challenging.
Most land isn’t considered the best for growing crops. Glacial till has left a lot of rocks in the soil. A short growing season makes the area suitable for rye, oats and potatoes—none of the corn and beans that are familiar in this part of the world.
Poland is challenged by the high standards for milk production set by the European Union. Although it’s an excellent territory for sheep, the country can’t compete with New Zealand in the wool market.
The agricultural hardships have led to a variety of projects through Heifer International. More than three dozen are on-going this year. Like China where John visited in the past, the Polish government is eager to cooperate with development efforts.
The recent study group landed in Warsaw and headed north to rehabilitation centers and orphanages.
The rehab centers house ex-convicts, homeless people and recovering addicts. Many of the orphanage children are known as “social orphans,” taken to the homes by their parents who can’t afford to raise them.
In both locations, Heifer is helping to establish agricultural projects to improve nutrition and and teach people practical job skills. Projects involve pigs, chickens and fish ponds. Organic farming efforts help fill a growing demand in Europe.
In farming communities to the east, a variety of needs were addressed, from establishing meat sheep breeds in the Podkarpacie region to buying pregnant Polish Red heifers—an almost extinct native breed —for families near Lipsk.
In the Heifer International tradition, the offspring of the animals are passed on to another family so the original gift keeps on giving.
In Dolhobrody along the Belarus border, farmers can’t afford equipment to work their small plots of land, so Heifer is providing draft horses.
“They seem to have a fondness for horses,” John said. “They have a bond with their animals that we don’t see much anymore.”
What he saw was reminiscent of what he’s read about American life from decades ago.
“It’s like turning the clock back one hundred years,” John said. “I think they’re very good at what they do, but they won’t get wealthy because they don’t own enough land.”
Heifer International’s goal is to make sure people can continue to make an adequate living while staying home on the farm.
Study tours provide a variety of benefits. They allow Heifer International to get first-hand reports on the success of its investments. Entertaining foreign guests leads to a source of pride for the people receiving livestock as they show off their farm.
“Every family wants you to come to their house,” John said. “The receptions we received were amazing, and these are not wealthy people.”
John enjoys the mix of fellow travelers on study tours. With varied backgrounds and an interesting mix of professional work, it becomes a case of “the more minds the better.” Everyone looks over a project and sometimes someone will come up with an idea for a better way of doing things.
Heifer International has a reputation for not sticking with something that doesn’t work, John said. Programs will be altered, if needed, for the best success.
“I’d like to go back in two years and see how things have changed,” John said.
With Heifer International’s help, things continue to change in locations all around the world.